Articles I'm digesting 24/7/2009

Been a while since I’ve done one of these and I’ve got a lot of great pieces I’ve been reading. So let’s get to it.

Designs on Policy by Allison Arieff (via David B.) and TED Talk: Are we in Control of our own Decisions? by Dan Ariely

I keep hearing about the interaction between policy and design (most flatteringly an architecture professor said I had a designer’s mind” the other day) and so over the past few years I try (with some success) to read as much as I can about design. David B sent me the Arieff piece which, of course, weds my passion for public policy with design. One thing I like is the way the piece doesn’t try to boil the ocean – it doesn’t claim (like in other places) that good design will solve every problem – just that it will help mitigate against it. Most intriguing for me is this line:

“It feels weird to have to defend design’s importance, yet also completely necessary. The United Kingdom has had a policy in place since 1949; Japan since 1956. In countries like Finland, Sweden, South Korea and the Netherlands, design is a no-brainer, reflected by the impeccable elegance, usability and readability of everything in those countries from currency to airport signage.”

A design policy? How civilized. That’s something I could get behind – especially after listening to Dan Ariely’s TED talk which is downright frightening at moments given how susceptible our decisions are (and most disconcerting the decisions of our doctors, dates and who knows whose) to the layout/perception of the choice.

Lost in the Cloud by John Zittrain

A few months ago I was in Ottawa and – surprisingly and unplanned – ended up at a pub with Richard Stallman. I asked him what he thought of Cloud Computing (a term he believes is too vague to be helpful) but was nonetheless viscerally opposed to it. Many of the reasons he cites are covered by Zittrain in this thoughtful piece. The fact is, Cloud Computing (or whatever term you may wish to use) is very convenient and it carries with it huge privacy, security and access challenges. This is potentially the next big challenge for those of us who support and Open Internet – the possibility of the internet being segmented into a series of walled gardens controlled by those who run the cloud servers is real and must be thought through. If you care about public policy and/or are a geek, read this.

Is it Time to Get Rid of the Foreign Service Designation?

Am I reading my own articles? No. I am, however, absorbed by the fascinating and constructive conversation taking place – mostly involving public servants – in the comments section underneath. Here are just some snippets:

  • “For 8 years I worked at DFAIT, observing and participating in the culture within the walls of a building named after a diplomat that Wikipedia states “is generally considered among the most influential Canadians of the 20th century.” Sadly, the elitism (whether earned or not) is only the cause of a bigger problem; lack of desire to collaborate, and almost no desire to change in an era where the only constant is change.”
  • “…as I left the issue of the FS classification was quietly but passionately part of the watercooler discussion. From my perspective, in spite of a nasty AG report on the dismal state of affairs of HR at DFAIT, the department has more pressing problems, such as credibility with central agencies, a coherent sense of mission and talent attraction and retention.”
  • “I am also a bit puzzled by people who saw your piece as an attack on DFAIT – you’re advocating for human resource reform to improve the department, after all. I’m still not sure why you think DFAIT is required though, or why Canadian foreign policy suffers when departments forumulate it without involving DFAIT.”
  • “It’s good to see that even Craig Weichel, President of PAFSO, is open to your suggestion that it might be good to have more foreign service officers circulate through other government departments…”

Putting the Cart Before the Horse by Peter Cowan

A great blog post about the lessons from implementing social media in a government agency. Peter Cowan – an Open Everything alum – is part of the team at Natural Resources Canada team that has been doing amazing work (NRCan is one of the most forward looking ministries in the world in this regard). Peter’s piece focuses on misunderstanding the “business case” for social media and how it often trips up large government bureaucracies. This abbreviated but extended quote on why traditional IT business cases don’t work or aren’t necessary is filled with great thoughts and comments:

“They (Social Media tools) are simple and viral and they cost very little to implement so the traditional requirements for upfront business needs definition to control risk and guide investment are not as important. In fact it would take more time to write a proposal and business case than to just put something out there and see what happens.

More importantly though social media are fundamentally new technologies and the best way to understand their business value is to get them into the hands of the users and have them tell you. To a large degree this is what has happened with the NRCan Wiki. Most of the innovative uses of the wiki came from the employees experimenting. They have not come from a clearly articulated business needs analysis or business case done in advance.

In fact, determining business needs in advance of having a tool in hand may actually lead to status quo approaches and tools. There is the famous Henry Ford… quote goes something like “if I had asked people what they wanted in a car they would have said faster horses”. We social media folks usually deploy this quote to highlight the weakness of focusing too much on responding to people’s perceptions of their existing business needs as a determinant of technology solution since people invariably define their needs in terms of improving the way they are already doing things, not how things could be done in a fundamentally new way.


Google’s Microsoft Moment by Anil Dash

A fantastic piece about how Google’s self-perception is causing it to make strategically unsound choices at the same time as its public perception may be radically shifting (from cute fuzzy Gizmo in to mean nasty Stripe). A thoughtful critique and a great read on how the growth and maturation of a company’s culture needs to match its economic growth. I’ve added Anil Dash to by must read blogs – he’s got lots of great content.